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The Importance of Employee Engagement


Sharon Kennedy, founder and principal consultant and Engage and Prosper, talks about how HRs can ensure they are delivering positive employee engagement throughout a business and its recruitment timeline. 

“The key is not to get engagement confused with engage.” says Sharon. “A CEO or HR can engage with their team several times a day, over any thing, simply by having a quick conversation at the water cooler. Employee engagement is much more emotional and holistic. It is about the overall employee experience.”

Without positive employee engagement, you quite simply have less satisfied employees. This is shown in a range of ways that impact on your business, says Sharon - absenteeism, low productivity, poor customer services.  “It can be spotted in other ways though,” she adds. “Those are the tangible signs – and undoubtedly the ones that have a longer corporate impact. But taking a walk around an office or workplace and watching your team should deliver further insights that can give you an early warning signal. Go with your gut - if people don’t look happy, if the mood is negative, if they are working slowly… then it’s a sign you need to improve employee engagement.”

So what is employee engagement? “It’s not just about being happy - you can have happy, lazy or unmotivated staff.

Happiness is of course important, but it’s more about management style - it goes back to the McGregor theory of X and Y,” Says Sharon. “This theory asserts that there are two human behaviours at work – Theory X and Theory Y.”

Theory X workers could apparently be described as individuals who dislike work and avoid it where possible, who avoid responsibility, desire security and prefer to be led. To achieve organisational objectives with Theory X workers, a business would need to impose a management system of coercion, control and if needed, punishment. Theory Y workers, on the other hand, were characterised by McGregor as seeing effort at work as just like rest or play. They see work as a source of satisfaction and seek responsibility (if they are motivated). The challenge for management with Theory Y workers is to create a working environment (or culture) where workers can show and develop their creativity.

“These are the two extremes,” advises Sharon. “According to the theory, all employees are somewhere on a sliding scale between the two. In decades gone by, more businesses would operate towards a Theory X style, with a clear management team and workforce. Managers would tend towards the stick as opposed to the carrot, but times have changed. Millennials enter the workforce with much higher expectations and more power is given to them than their parents or even Gen Xers received. The days of decisions being made in ivory towers are over - successful CEOS are more involved with their workforces, and recognise the value of their input. Of course, the decisions will ultimately rest with management,  but things are more full circle now. And they need to be.”

So when should employee engagement start? Sharon advises that it if possible, it should start before they are even employees.

“Every company is a brand,” says Sharon. “The public perception will always differ from the internal one, but that first touchpoint for potential employees is key. Think about how you are represented, not just on your owned media - your website, your blog, your advertising - but on social media. What are people saying about you? How strong is your PR?  Would someone be proud to work for you? Recruitment is a two way process now, the candidates need to be just as sure about you, as you are about them.”

Sharon advises that the first thing to do to start driving positive employee engagement is to understand the level of commitment and ensure you have a receptive and open leadership team. “Without an on-board management team then an HR will struggle to implement any cultural changes.” Then full audits should be carried out.

“Internal HR teams can sometimes find they are too close to the business to be able to recognise, let alone assess any problems  - this is where we come in,” says Sharon. By offering an objective eye and a neutral ear, we give the employees confidence to voice any concerns. We also give HRs the support needed to sign off change!”

And this act alone is classic positive employee engagement, says Sharon. “You are actively seeking out employee opinions with the express intention of acting upon them, to ensure they are satisfied and supported in their job. It’s a vital process, as are exit interviews.

The next step is to set benchmarks. “These are the tools upon which you will measure success and they differ from business to business,” says Sharon. “You’ll find that they will come out of the audits that have been carried out.  You may only have a few but they need to be honest and sustainable. Then you need to appoint the champions, the systems and the frameworks needed to reach the goals.”

Introducing a programme of change to achieve positive employee engagement requires a mindset of continued improvement, stresses Sharon. “You need to keep evaluating, keep on top of new trends and initiatives and keep improving.”

When did this drive towards employee engagement start? “There is no doubt that there have been massive moves towards this in the last few years, starting a couple of decades ago in the US with the growth of gamification,” says Sharon. “It became commonplace to adopt strategies that would drive more sales, increase collaboration and ROI, instill deeper loyalty and raise customer satisfaction - good salaries alone cannot deliver this.”

“Linked In was also a gamechanger,” she continues. “It opened up employees’ eyes and they could gain a much wider understanding of their worth. It became self-fulfilling and the digitally savvy new generation of potential and existing employees use it to its full potential.”

The challenge for managers is to try to be neutral and recognise that we can all learn something from one another. To give employees autonomy, responsibility and worth, while still steering them in the right direction for the brand.

And it is always about the brand, concludes Sharon. “Your purpose, EVP and company values need to be present at all times,” she says. “A joined up approach of internal comms, HR, recruitment and marketing will help with this.

“By driving positive employee engagement, you are helping to build passion, loyalty, continuity and growth. It’s a long-term goal - to build a good employee experience for the whole journey they have with your business.“

The Engage & Prosper eBook - Neuroscience in the Workplace can be downloaded by clicking here.